From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
There were whoops and cheers on May 22-graduation day for Joplin High's senior class. Then, minutes later, the wail of storm sirens. A tornado, the deadliest in more than 50 years, cleaved the town, killing 160 people, among them seven students. Six of the school district's 19 buildings were destroyed; 4 had major damage. At that point, says Debbie Fort, principal of Joplin's Irving Elementary, "there was no thought of the schools opening again. It was just: account for your students." Once families were found, attention turned to the wreckage. When she drove past Irving, "it broke my heart. I just cried out." District superintendent C.J. Huff vowed to re-create 260 classrooms for 4,200 students in 87 days for the start of classes on Aug. 17. "This city," he says, "needed the confidence we could rebuild." They didn't do it alone. As makeshift spaces were transformed-a warehouse became a middle school; a vacant department store, a high school-thousands of volunteers poured in. Against the odds, school started on time. "I've never been more excited for the first day of school," says Lamoni Davis, 16. "The old school was home. But we're making new memories."

They Pitched In on Their Honeymoon

Houston newlyweds Jennifer, 29, and Ryann Clifford, 31, who run a construction business, veered 100 miles off their Ozarks trip to spend three days in Joplin. "One of the most important things we did was listen," says Jennifer. "Everybody wanted to tell us what they'd been through." They gave one resident a washer-dryer and later delivered boxes of books, built school desks and donated silk sunflowers from their wedding to a bride. Their gift? "Amazing friends."

They Came From All Over

Samaritans from California to Virginia arrived to build shelves, stock libraries, stuff backpacks, sweep floors, paint railings and clear playgrounds. Most acted solo or in unofficial groups; many had no connection to Joplin but felt the town's need. "Ninety days ago I looked my kids in the eye and thought we were all going to die," says Liz Easton, 42, a parent who lost her home as well as her business. But as classes began, her son Walker, 14, a high school freshman, and daughter Jimmi, 16, a junior, were filled with "hope and anticipation," Easton says. "I'm grateful for all the selflessness."

A Texas Band Raises Spirits

Here's how easy it is to be a hero: Pick up the phone. "I said, 'I'm with Little Elm High School. We're a small town, but we can make a big impact,'" recalls Lanette Bowcutt, 40, from a Texas burg of 25,800. Her son Nicholas, 16, plays tuba in the marching band, and she knew the bonds it built-that those in Joplin had lost more than drums and sheet music. She helped raise $3,500, gathered 400 instruments and drove with 18 kids (who slept on a gym floor) for a one-day camp to get their band on its feet. Says Joplin color guard co-captain Hannah Scroggs, 17: "It's awesome." Adds her Little Elm counterpart Kris Galbreath, 17: "If this happened to us, we'd want anybody to do the same."

Scouts Come Prepared

Joplin's Troop 333 earned emergency-preparedness badges three weeks before the tornado. "It has really come in handy," says Max Broglio, 12, who was one of more than 1,000 Boy Scouts from seven states who painted railings, scrubbed buses and shelved thousands of books. Some had a vested interest: "The tornado clipped the end of our old school," says Tyler Viles, 14, of Joplin. "We wanted to help at our new school."

A Teacher Gets Ready

When her classroom was destroyed, Shelly Tarter, 45, wanted the new one, in a modular trailer, to not only look familiar, but sound familiar. Over 17 years she had amassed 150 CDs-now lost to the storm-teaching kids to appreciate sounds from Willie Nelson to John Coltrane to Beethoven. "Some music is soothing; some engages their brains." Volunteers moved books, and Tarter hand-painted inspirational posters. Then "one woman sent me a $50 iTunes card." On Day 1 her third graders grooved like old times. "It was fantastic. The kids are happy, and we're all excited to start learning again."

  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Champ Clark/Joplin,
  • Pam Grout/Joplin.